Chrissa Hardy
July 22, 2016 10:45 am
Walt Disney Studios

It’s happened to the best of us: You stroll into Sephora or Anthropologie, you browse for about an hour, and you walk out with a heavy bag of new goodies and nothing but a blurry memory of how you dropped so much money in so little time. The chances are probably slim that you shopped with reckless abandon using a wad of cash, since it’s just easier to go on a shopping spree with nothing but plastic in your hand. And it turns out, shopping with cash could prevent you from mindless spending, which is often followed by a painful bout of buyer’s remorse.

According to science, and a recent study from the Journal of Consumer Research, paying with cash strengthens the emotional attachment to that particular purchase. Authors of the study, Avni M. Shah, Noah Eisenkraft, James R. Bettman, and Tanya L. Chartrand, write, “While the convenience of going cashless is undeniable, it comes with an inadvertent downside — we tend to value purchases less when using a card than when we pay via the more ‘painful’ methods of cash or check.”


It’s just so easy.

It makes sense, since modern consumerism is all about convenience and instant gratification, we tend to keep less cash on us and opt for the credit or debit card. It’s certainly easier to use a card for all of your shopping, but there’s zero counting involved, it takes longer for those funds to leave your grasp since you pay the bill later, and once you swipe the card, you get to put it back in your wallet. Cash, on the other hand, leaves your hand and goes into the register — never to be seen again.

In one of several studies conducted by the authors, participants were sold identical mugs costing $2. Half of them could pay with a debit or credit card, and the other half had to pay in cash. Later, they were all asked to sell their mugs back, and the cash spenders asked for an average of $3 more for their mug than the plastic users did. The authors concluded that, “Using cash or check seems to increase the psychological ‘pain’ or sacrifice of the act and creates more affinity with the product or brand.”


Nostalgia works in mysterious ways.

While the visual sacrifice of handing over cash seems to be the main factor here, it makes me wonder if there’s also a connection between how long we’ve been trained to covet cash, compared to how long we’ve been able to use plastic as a form of payment.

As kids, getting an allowance was thrilling. It showed us how to count, spend, and save money early on. The same important lessons are much harder to teach with a credit or debit card. A lot of us were given cash when our baby teeth fell out, on holidays, and if we were lucky, when we completed household chores. Cash was the goal, and we spent it on toys and candy. Then we spent it on shinier toys, clothes, and tech gadgets. Our plastic spending habits didn’t even start until we were old enough to graduate high school.

So perhaps it’s a generous helping of sacrifice, mixed with a dollop of nostalgia, that makes cash such an elusive and powerful spending tool. But it’s the key to keeping me from dropping another triple-digit-total at Sephora, I’ll try anything.